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Call Me Quota Queen

Vivia Chen

June 4, 2018


Of the myriad articles I’ve written about women in Big Law, this one hit a nerve: Male clients disfavor female partners. In fact, they are one-third less likely than female clients to choose women as lead counsel.

Of course, women always suspected it's a boys club. Yet, seeing cold, hard data support that suspicion tapped a deep-seated fear: No matter how hard they try, women face daunting odds in developing business—and that means women won't catch up with men in pay or power. 

I heard from women all over the country, voicing frustration and anger that male cronyism seems as strong as ever. Some women told me that they've basically given up on trying to develop business from men—either because men were unreceptive or that they read the overture as some kind of sexual invitation. One young female partner at an AmLaw 100 firm said to me: "It's just a waste of time. I guess I'll always be a service partner."

All of this is disheartening because clients were supposed to the saviors. They're supposed to be the enlightened ones who are clamoring for more women and minorities to do their work. 

And, indeed, big companies have made a lot of noise about that mission. In 1999, over 500 companies signed on to the Statement of Principles, pledging to press law firms to promote women and minorities. In 2004, companies signed onto Call to Action, vowing to keep stats on law firms and "take action" if necessary. 

Though launched with great fanfare, these initiatives eventually died quietly on the vine. To put it simply, they were lame.

So what's next? How about something with more teeth? Force firms to tell the truth about compensation. Shame them into it, if necessary. Then hold them accountable until they improve the situation.

Let me get more specific:

First, firms should be totally transparent about their compensation systems and client credit allocation, starting with breakdowns about how men and women are paid (equity and nonequity partners and associates who are paid bonuses). And if some firms refuse to disclose this information or play games about the status of their partners, they should be outed. (I'm looking at you Jones Day and Greenberg Traurig.)

Second, firms should set specific goals as to when they plan to attain that 20, 25, 30 or whatever percent female equity partner mark. Funny how firms will tout all the awesome things they're doing for female lawyers—like throwing swanky networking events or Fed-Exing breast milk for nursing mothers—yet none will commit to a timetable about when they'll reach a critical percentage of female equity partners. After so much talk, you'd think firms would have the guts to take a public stance about specific targets.

Thirdly—brace yourself—we should consider quotas. European countries set quotas for the percentage of women on the boards of their public companies, and, despite initial skepticism, the quota system has worked. So is the idea of quotas in allocating client credit so outlandish? The CEO of Acritas doesn't think so. She proposes that clients "apply quotas in their work allocation—giving at least one in three matters to a female lead partner and demand gender diverse teams."

Will quotas fly in Big Law? Nah. It goes against a myth we hold dear: that law is a meritocracy in which the brightest rise to the top. Though experience tells us otherwise, we cling onto that myth. 

Quotas are so taboo that they're not even discussed. "I am not aware of people pressing for nor firms considering quotas for client credit allocation," says Brande Stellings, a vice president at Catalyst, an organization that promotes women. "Although quotas have been around for over a decade in Europe, the topic has largely been a non-starter in the U.S."

As someone who's cover women in law for over 15 years and seen paltry progress, I think it's time to talk about it—and other measures that involve some strong-arming.

Does all this sound too Draconian? Good, because that's what we need. 

Email me: vchen@alm.com

Follow me on Twitter: @lawcareerist



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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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